As tornado approaches, flee mobile homes in favor of vehicles or ditches, experts say

Randall Chadwell, right, picked through the wreckage of his mobile home after the tornado. Chadwell and his wife, Bulah, left their home when the storm threatened and were miles away when it hit. Their neighbors, Sherman and Debbie Allen, died when their mobile home was destroyed.
Randall Chadwell, right, picked through the wreckage of his mobile home after the tornado. Chadwell and his wife, Bulah, left their home when the storm threatened and were miles away when it hit. Their neighbors, Sherman and Debbie Allen, died when their mobile home was destroyed.

Faced with warnings about the potential for strong tornadoes March 2, Randall and Bulah Chadwell and their daughter left their mobile home on a ridge in northern Laurel County well before the storm front was to come through.

Their next-door neighbors, Sherman and Debbie Allen, stayed at their mobile home with their son, Eric, and his fiancée, Amy Harris.

The Chadwells were miles away when the fast-moving tornado hit just after 7 p.m., tearing both homes to pieces. Sherman and Debbie Allen died, and their son and his girlfriend were seriously injured.

Nearly every year in the United States, most deaths caused by tornadoes occur among people who live in mobile homes, according to the National Weather Service. Deaths in Kentucky from the March 2 tornadoes bore that out.

Of 23 people who died of injuries sustained as the tornadoes raked Kentucky, 16 died when their mobile homes were destroyed. Others perished when high winds hit their vehicles or site-built homes, which the weather service calls "permanent homes." (One woman was trapped in her closet, apparently while seeking shelter, and one man died after falling at a damaged house the day after the tornadoes.)

Nationwide, statistics from 2001 to 2010 show that people who live in mobile homes die in tornadoes at a rate 15 times higher than residents of permanent homes, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory.

For decades, the weather service, emergency officials and others have preached the same message to mobile-home residents about what to do when a tornado approaches: Get out, as the Chadwells did.

Design standards for mobile homes were improved in 1976 and again in 1994. The homes are called manufactured housing if built after the mid-1970s. In Kentucky, such homes must be able to withstand winds of 70 mph.

Kentucky requires that manufactured homes be set up by certified installers, on concrete foundations for sectional homes, and according to the maker's recommendations to anchor them, said Hargis Epperson, a state inspector.

Still, even anchored mobile homes offer little protection from tornadoes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Shawn Harley, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Jackson, said he thinks people who live in mobile homes should leave when officials issue a tornado watch and not wait for a warning to be issued.

The issue is important in Kentucky because the state has a relatively high percentage of people who live in mobile or manufactured homes.

In 2010, such homes accounted for 12.6 percent of the housing units in Kentucky, compared with 6.1 percent nationwide, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated.

The weather service, FEMA and other agencies agree that instead of staying in a mobile home as a tornado approaches, residents should go to a storm shelter or the lowest floor of a sturdy building nearby.

There is disagreement on what to do if such shelter is not available, however.

The longtime, official advice was that it was better to get down in a ditch or depression outside rather than ride out a tornado in a mobile home, where flying debris from the disintegrating structure could be deadly.

However, Thomas Schmidlin, a professor at Kent State University who has researched tornado safety among mobile-home residents, has argued that taking shelter in a car or truck would be safer than staying in a mobile home or lying in a ditch.

Schmidlin said that while doing a study in Georgia and Alabama in 1994, he and fellow researchers were surprised at how common it was to see cars or pickups upright, with little damage, near mobile homes where people were killed.

Studies have shown that damage to mobile homes occurs at wind speeds as low as 70 mph, but 50 percent of cars at sites hit by tornadoes with much higher estimated wind speeds were not moved more than a meter, and 82 percent didn't tip over, according to a study by Schmidlin and others published in 2002.

There will be exceptions — tornadoes kill people in vehicles every year, including at least two in Kentucky this month — but it is likely a person "encounters less risk of death while belted into a stationary vehicle than while in a mobile home during severe winds," according to the study.

At least one example in Laurel County during the March 2 tornado demonstrated the effectiveness of using a vehicle for shelter. Arthur Parker said he and his wife, Mary, were in the garage next to their single-wide mobile home before the tornado moved in.

Parker said the mobile home was anchored into the ground, but he said he thought the garage was sturdier. His wife was in their 1987 Chevrolet pickup as the tornado roared in, and Parker jumped in with her. The tornado blew away the garage and destroyed their mobile home, but the truck came through with only a dent.

"That old truck is the only thing that saved us," Parker said. "If we'd stayed in that trailer, it would've killed us."

Schmidlin said research shows many residents of mobile homes don't have safe shelter nearby and are reluctant to go outside in the rain and lightning and take cover in a ditch that might be filled with water, with power lines overhead. That's why he thinks it would be better for them to drive to shelter.

The debate over taking cover outside versus in a car hasn't been settled, though the National Weather Service and the Red Cross issued an advisory in 2009 saying that if you are caught outside in a tornado and can't get to a safe building, as a last resort you should get in your vehicle and try to drive to safety.

If the vehicle is hit by debris, you should park, leave your seat belt on, get your head below window level and cover your head, according to the advisory.

More neighborliness might also save lives, Schmidlin said.

In a survey of 401 mobile home residents in four states, published in 2007, many people said they did not seek shelter at sturdier frame houses nearby, in part because they didn't know the owners.

County emergency managers, police, fire departments, churches, and service organizations could facilitate the "neighborly gesture" of taking in neighbors during a tornado warning, Schmidlin wrote.

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